I was invited by the Writers League of Kosova to read at their literary festival, Drini Poetik, in the historic and lovely town of Prizren. I’d heard and read a lot about Prizren, dreamed of visiting it one day and then quite unexpectedly, I was invited there.
|Prizren's old bridge and fortress on the hill|
Just arriving at Pristina airport reminded me of times spent in Albania, for although it is a different country, a very young country, this Republic of Kosova, these are Albanian people, share the same language of course, but also the characteristic Albanian energy, enthusiasm, hospitality, respect and truly remarkable generosity of spirit. I was reminded more than once that the guest, to Albanians, is treated almost as a sacred being.
My hosts are Professor Shyqri Galica and Abdyl Kadolli, President and Vice-President of the Writers League, who met me at the airport. We drove through the green and lush countryside of Kosova, along the new autostrada as I was told, recently built, smooth surfaced and almost empty, that leads to Tirana. Shyqri drives and talks on the phone at the same time. When we turn off on the Prizren road, this also involves changing gear, but it is done with supreme skill and nonchalance. Along with my luggage, I handed over my autonomy, for now my life was going to be completely decided and arranged for me. My struggles to pay for anything, even a coffee, were met with fierce resistance, and it is a battle that cannot be won unless one resorts to subterfuge which was the only time I was successful, sneaking up to the counter and paying before the others noticed.
|Sinan Pasha mosque, Prizren|
In Prizren the weather was sublime, hot and sunny. I was taken to the hotel where I left my luggage. There’s a throng of people there, Abdyl says to me preparez, preparez, (he means get ready to go as soon as possible) while also talking to people at reception, and various other conference members who have arrived. We are late, and we need to get to the centre soon. Because he is the organizer everyone needs to talk to him, and he ushers me around like a benevolent and distracted shepherd.
Abdyl was determined to find a taxi, as Shyqri’s car now refuses to start. But after spending hours in a plane the day before, managed a few hours sleep in a hotel with windows that didn’t open, up at 3 am to be taken to the airport at 4 am, then hours in the airport (the flight to Pristina was delayed) and then on the plane, I longed to walk in fresh air. Vous voulez aller a pied? said Abdyl in disbelief. Oui, says I, and begin walking. Abdyl’s French is basic, and he often does not understand what I am saying, but he got the message, and we walked in the sunlit streets to the conference centre.
The Festival opened with an art exhibition, followed by various speeches which I cannot say I fully understood, my Albanian being extremely basic, but I got the gist of the fulsome welcome extended to everyone. Riza Lahi, a writer from Tirana, who speaks good English, was assigned to me as translator, a lively and friendly man, who was a former military pilot and interpreter. Riza laughs, gesticulates, seizes my elbow to usher me here and there, and I joke with him that Abdyl is the shepherd and I am the lamb that follows him around. He roars with laughter at this and tells Abdyl. We Albanians love to tell jokes, he says.
|Cafe above the Centre Europa|
After the speeches and talks on the theme of ‘The Author and Literary Publications’ we go to the outside café next to the centre, and there I meet various other writers, including Arben, a young man who lost a leg while fighting for the Kosova Liberation Army. I ask him if he is happy now that Kosova is independent. Pa djeter (of course) he smiles. When he smiles, says Riza, the warmth of his heart shines on his face. And it is true, when he smiles, his face is suffused with a warmth that is modest and shy, almost a blush. Arben tells me later that he never wanted to be a soldier, he was a writer, but during the war, when people were being killed, their homes shelled and burned, he felt he had to do something for his country, so he joined the KLA/UÇK and for 3 years lived and fought in the mountains around Prizren. Albania and Macedonia lie just beyond these mountains.
|From left, Riza, Arben and Salajdin|
We are then driven outside the town to a restaurant surrounded by the green and forested Sharr mountains, by the side of the river Lum Bardhe. This wonderful meal went on for hours, before we were ferried back to Prizren, for the evening readings, with musical interludes, fiddle and flute playing. I read in English while Shyqri read the Albanian translation, kindly provided by Agim Morina.
Outside in the warm night, we strolled around the pedestrian area of the city centre, then headed to a cafe by the riverside for a final coffee, before I prevailed on my hosts that I had to sleep, and we headed back to the hotel. While I stumbled into bed, the Albanians stayed up talking and drinking for hours...